Pepper is a favorite table spice, one that centuries ago was traded like gold. But a chemical component that helps the body more readily absorb drugs and nutrients may make pepper valuable for health too.
Black pepper (Piper nigrum) is the best-known pepper species and a popular spice. It single-handedly accounts for about 35 percent of total world spice trade. Long pepper (P. longum) is also popular and is used primarily as a medicinal plant in traditional Ayurvedic medicine.
Research shows that in both peppers an alkaloid phytochemical called piperine is responsible for the spice’s pungent flavor and its ability to enhance the bioavailability of other compounds.
The Exceptional Alkaloid
Unlike most alkaloids, which tend to be bitter, piperine tastes pleasant. Also unlike many other alkaloids, piperine is not harmful in high daily doses. These characteristics make piperine particularly suitable for its medicinal role: making drugs and nutrients more bioavailable by increasing absorption in the gut and slowing the rate at which drugs in particular are neutralized and eliminated. The body considers drugs and most phytochemicals foreign substances, so it begins working to detoxify and eliminate them immediately after absorption—regardless of whether the goal is to keep them circulating. Slowing this elimination process is key to getting the most benefit from pharmaceutical drugs or medicinal herbs, a service that piperine handily provides. Coadministering piperine also means using lower doses of dangerous or expensive drugs and herbs to achieve desired results.
Enhancing Nutrient Absorption
Piperine also may be more effective at increasing absorption of nutrients. This is because, unlike drugs, the body recognizes nutrients and wants to use them, not eliminate them. In five different human studies, 5 mg of standardized piperine (Bioperine) was administered simultaneously with standard doses of the nutrients beta-carotene, selenium, vitamin B6, vitamin C, and coenzyme Q10. A control group received the nutritional supplements, but no piperine. Researchers found the nutrients at significantly higher blood levels in study participants who took the piperine than in those who did not.
How Effective is Peppering Food?
If you’re a heavy pepper user, you may come close to reaching the 5-mg level of piperine found beneficial in the scientific studies. While researchers believe that piperine is most effective when combined with nutritional supplements in a concentrated dose, the evidence suggests that regular pepper applications may help promote healthy nutrient absorption. So pepper’s popularity may be more than pungency. Over the eons, intuition and experience may have taught us that pepper works to make meals more nutritious.
A Favorite Ayurvedic Remedy
C. Leigh Broadhurst holds a doctorate in geochemistry and is a nutrition consultant in Clovery, Maryland.
James A. Duke, Ph.D., was a member of the
Herbs for Health Editorial Advisory Board.
His most recent book is Herbs of the Bible (Interweave Press, 1999).